College student, Community supporter, and Former Refugee

Mohamed Malim

My name Ku Mo, I came from a refugee camp in Thailand, so I am Karenni. That’s an ethnic minority from Burma. I came here with my family, and we came because we lived in a refugee camp, and of course, my parents wanted a better life for us children, to get more experience and education. Because back then all we had was our own Karenni community, we had to make our housing, our school. And it was the United Nations that offered the Karenni refugees an opportunity to immigrate to the United States. There were other countries, but my parents decided on the United States to give us the best chance at success.

We arrived in 2009 in a small city in Missouri called Columbia. I was only 7 years old. I didn’t know any English, my parents didn’t know any English, my siblings didn’t know any English, but we were fortunate that my uncle came here first. He was like an experiment to see how United States life was, and he said it was great, there were more opportunities for us, there were more jobs for my parents, that’s why he called us to come and have this great experience. It was tough, though. I remember when I first came here, I cried a lot.

At school, I was really scared because I only finished first grade back in Thailand, and I did ne any knowledge of what was going on, and of course, the United States education was really diff I had to learn the alphabet as a second-grader when I first arrived here, and I was just really lonely at school. My teachers had to cal,l my parents to come to pick me up, but of course, they couldn’t pick me up because they had no car, they didn’t speak any English, so they had to get in contact with my uncle first, so of course it took longer for us to communicate. I was just lonely at school, and my parents had a tough time trying to find the right job for them use they didn’t know any English, and we had to rely a lot on my uncle which was fortunate for us. And we also had a lot of support like social workers, they found us a great apartment, I remember we had two complex housing apartments together, and each of our siblings had our own bedroom, but we had never experienced having our bed because back in Thailand, all of our family slept together in one room, and when we first came there was a lot of space, but we couldn’t take advantage of it, because we were scared we were still living the same lifestyle as back in Thailand. So instead of each sibling having our bed, we just moved together and slept together in one room, which felt more safe for us.

In Thailand, I had no outside experience. I did not know that there were other races, I didn’t even know what race was until I came here, because the only people that I had encountered were my own community, Karenni, and Thai people. So I had no idea that others were different from us, different skin color, different cultures, I would say I didn’t have much outside experience. The only thing I had was just being at home, farming, my parents did a lot of farming, we had no technology, no electricity, it was all man-made tools. If you see in movies how they live in the jungle, it was like that. Our house was made out of bamboo, we didn’t have any experience like a kid in the U.S. would have. Then as a refugee in the United States, I

would say I’ve always felt behind students at school with me. Like they knew English well, and I know some non-Americans who weren’t born here were still here longer than me, so I would wonder like where would I be when I’m here for 10 years? And now I’ve been here for 11 years, and it seems like nothing has really changed, it just went by really fast. And I would say that telling others who you are is a challenge. Sometimes when you tell someone you’re a refugee, they want to know what you overcame. I get that question a lot. Just getting used to U.S. society is hard.

Most refugees don’t have a home, and that is true. Thailand is not my Karenni home. As a refugee myself who was born in Thailand, my parents were born in Burma, but they had to flee because of the war that’s going on in Burma even today in 2021 it’s happening. My parents experienced that in 1996 which is why they fled to the camp in Thailand. I would say that when I hear “refugees don’t realla home,” it is hard for me as a refugee to find a home. When I’m home I would have to figure out where to settle in the U.S or my parents who always want to go back to Burma and settle in their home. And for me, as I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, I know that’s not our home because it’s a camp. And I came to the U.S. when I was 7, now I’ll grow up here and get used to the American society. So is this where I’ll call home? Or will I go back to Burma and call it home, where I’ve had no experience? But it’s great to have that knowledge of my parents’ home, what they would call home. Because of what’s going on in Burma right now, I was able to find a way to see if I can help back in Burma, even if it’s just spreading the word about what’s going on.

Giving us a voice. As I said, I’ve talked about my own experience, because with the Karenni and Karen community, all those ethnic minority groups from Burma, we had no voice back in Burma. No freedom, no democratic powers. I’ve seen videos back in Burma of those who are protesting, what you call to protest in the U.S. is like a war to them, they have to risk their lives to protest against the military in Burma. Here in the U.S., we have that power to protest, speak out about what’s going on. Just allowing us to have a voice and the freedom to protest, to talk about everything, that’s great and powerful as a refugee to have that opportunity and to help our community back in wherever we call home.

Success is to me, I mean I’m still young, I’m only 19. But success is feeling welcomed, feeling proud of yourself, and feeling that everyone around you is supportive of you. Like I’m a really shy girl myself, if I’m with my Karenni community, I might not be as talkative as I am right now. I don’t dare to talk, but I’m really glad to be part of my other community, my peers, my friends, my mfeel, and advisors at school and in the community. I think when I dare to speak up and they feel proud of me, and my parents feel proud of me, and I get to see that I’ve been awarded accomplishments, that’s what I call success. My passion gives me energy and motivation. I know there are times when you’re not sure what you wanna do, but whenever I think about what I want to do, which is to give back to my community, I just continue and persevere.

My biggest one is to graduate high school, because my parents had no education, they didn’t even go to school. So being the first generation, I have two other siblings, one younger, and

they’ve all already graduated, one graduated from college this spring, and so far that’s been my biggest accomplishment. Because I can prove to my parents that them bringing me to the U.S. was a good choice because I was able to get an education, I’ve seen a lot of what’s going on in the U.S. and I was open to other communities, not just mine, to see how people in the U.S.
react to polibeingompared to what’s going on back in Burma. It’s different, and it’s nice being able to experience that too. My other accomplishments, just getting into the University of Minnesota, to be in college, and continuing my education. I would also say getting internship full-time summer. Because most Karenni immigrants are my age when they come to the U.S. maybe 16 or 18, a lot of them have to drop out of high school to support their parents, even after graduating from high school they just go to work right after high school. They have to take a full time job at some factory or grocery store just to support their family. So me being able to continue my education means a lot to me, and also I can tell that my parents are supportive of what I am doing because they always think back to the day when they brought us here and that our education is the reason why. I think following my parents’ dream is one of my biggest accomplishments.

I would say don’t be afraid. When I first came here, I was a bullying victim, but I was young, I had no English knowledge, and I remember that experience pushed me down a lot. It took me a while to get up and prove that I was smart and that I could use my knowledge to help my community. So it’s going to be hard being a refugee in the U.S. it’ll make you feel dumb because you don’t speak English or you can’t drive a car or find a job or apply for a scholarship, so it’s best for refugees to be involved in as many activities as possible. Whether it’s in school or the community, because that will open you up to American society, and it will help you tell your story when you meet the right people who want to hear your story and help you. That can help you find your place in a new country. And just be yourself. Whatever your story is, don’t be afraid to tell it and keep your traditions. Like as a Karenni person, we have traditions that are very different from Americans. I would just say to refugees that our stories may not be the best, but it’s a story worth telling to everyone because I think it’s really powerful.

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